This seems to be reunion season. College and high school classes all over the place are getting together to reminisce about old times and to nervously eye each other — with many thinking, “I don’t look that bad yet, do I?”
I know at least half a dozen people who’ve been to reunions in the last month. For some, it’s just fun, but for others it’s a time of sober reflection. When I talked with one friend today, he told me his reaction to seeing his classmates from not that long ago.
“Being there has me thinking about some things,” he said. “I looked around that night and realized these were the people who I grew up wanting to impress — and when I look at them now, I can’t figure out why I ever cared what they thought of me.”
When you were a small child, you wanted to impress your parents, maybe your siblings, maybe extended family and family friends. As you got older, the circle of people you wanted to impress changed. You wanted to impress your peers. Then you wanted to impress romantic interests. Your audience kept changing.
But at every point in your life, your choice about who to impress has said very loudly who you are.
When I was growing up, I wanted to impress my father — and others in my family to a lesser degree. By the time I was in high school, I wanted to impress those in my school and in my church — my teen-aged peers and the adult leaders.
I needed their approval. I can’t tell you why. I just know that humans are social creatures who need the approval of those around us.
I wanted those people to believe I was smart and capable. I wanted them to believe I was a leader who was going to do great things. I wanted them to believe I was a good and moral person.
By virtue of caring what these people thought of me, I unconsciously adopted many of their standards. In order to please the people who you want to impress, you have to understand what they believe is good and acceptable. Either consciously or unconsciously, you begin to mirror their values.
I mirrored the values of my very conservative community. It was never a choice. It was simply a given that the values of my family and church and school and community would be my values. Whether intentionally or otherwise, you almost certainly did the same. Sometimes this works well. Other times, it doesn’t.
Shared values are good for community cohesiveness, but what happens when the community values are wrong or when those values lead an individual to do things which aren’t in his or her best interests?
What happens when the community values say that racism is perfectly moral and natural? What happens when the community values teach everyone that one particular religious group is evil or should be persecuted? What happens when the community values tell individuals to repress themselves — not to be who they really are — in the name of being what the community wants?
I wouldn’t have understood these questions when I was a teen. I doubt you would have, either. We just accepted the community values we received — rebelling a bit around the edges, for sure — but we essentially fell in line with whatever group we decided we wanted to like us.
Fortunately for me, I moved away from those people and I questioned my values. Even back then, I was enough of an outsider and an iconoclast to question things more than the group typically preferred. And by the time I had been away for 10 years or so, I started radically going off on my own — discarding many of the values of my youth community and replacing them with values I chose for myself.
Not everybody learns to think for himself in such ways. Some people are unfortunate enough to have stayed pretty much exactly what they were when they were growing up. And they almost never change.
For those of us who reject where we started, it’s easy to think that we’re just independent people who aren’t influenced by others anymore. But even that is mistaken.
Although my core values are pretty solidly in place, I still reflect some of the values of those very few people who I want to impress. But now, that’s a much different group — sometimes just one person, in fact — and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s OK.
When you love other people, those are the people who go a long way toward determining who you are. If you choose wisely, those people help you to walk a path that you will be proud of. If you choose people who aren’t worth partnering with, their values will corrupt you and lead you down a painful path.
The person who will affect your values and life choices more than anyone else is the partner you choose to love. Whether you intend it or not, that person will ultimately shape you and your values. He or she will shape your children and their values, too, no matter how much you fight it.
Remember this: When you dance with the devil, the devil changes you.
When you were a child, you didn’t have any choice but to want to impress your parents and win their approval. When you were a teen, it would have been almost impossible to have no concern about wanting to win the approval and praise of your peers and community.
But if you’re a mature adult, you are now responsible for your choices.
Ask yourself who your actions are trying to impress. Ask yourself whose approval you really want. If you’ll ask those questions — and be brutally honest with yourself — you’ll learn a lot about your values and about who you really are.
If you don’t like those answers, you can make changes. No matter where you are in life, it’s not too late to decide whose approval you want. But decide carefully. That choice is going to shape your destiny — and your children’s destiny — whether you like it or not.
Choose wisely whose approval and love to seek.